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Illicit mining in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest is having a severe impact on the environment. According to Juan José Córdova, leader of the energy sector at KPMG Peru, “it is estimated that 30 to 40 [metric] tons of mercury are dumped into the environment annually and burned off after amalgamation- generally without even using rudimentary technology to protect workers’ health or capture waste or fumes.”

Mercury, bound to gold, is burned off into the atmosphere after its use. Photo from amazonaid.org

The mercury is used to extract gold particles, but lack of oversight means that the toxic metal often contaminates the surrounding ecosystem. Córdova notes that mercury is infecting fish species that are consumed by local humans as well as predators, which can have a chain effect on the ecosystem and cause dire health effects in humans. The nature of illicit mining means its hard to pinpoint its exact impact, but it is estimated that about 20% of Peru’s $10 billion gold exports comes from illicit mining. Troublingly, the rate of illicit mining seems to be growing.

The Peruvian mining ministry continues to take measures to mitigate and prevent the impact from illicit mining, including confiscating illicit gold and educating workers about the environmental damage they are causing. The presence of illicit mining and its harmful side effects is not limited to Peru, but expands into neighboring South American countries and the greater Amazon rainforest.